On the weekend of Feb. 11-12 at the EKG Stables in Spotsylvania County, UMW’s equestrian team brought home many ribbons from their doubleheader against Randolph-Macon College, Sweet Briar College, Christopher Newport University, University of Richmond, Liberty University and The College of William and Mary. Overall, the team rode home as the Reserve High Point Team of the day on Sunday, earning the second-highest number of points.
“They were great,” said Head Coach Erin Grampp, a class of 2002 alumna who has been horseback riding for 40 years and was part of the equestrian team during her time at UMW. “Everything ran smoothly—some kids had the best rides of the season, and everyone’s getting better.”
On Saturday, juniors Abby Mills, Kinsey Brotman and Mia Gibson all won their flat classes while sophomore Kate Howlin placed first in her over fences class. Emma Najdzionek was awarded High Point Rider of the Day on Saturday as she won her flat class and scored second place in her over fences class. The following day of competition, freshman Eliza LaViolette earned Reserve High Point Rider of the Day winning her flat class and sophomore Olivia Miller won High Point Rider of the Day on as she won her over fences class and scored second place in her flat class.
“I try to stay around the barn as much as I can, helping with the horses and riding as much as I can,” said Najdzionek, a chemistry major who has been riding for 10 years. “It’s definitely a learning curve … so it’s been a process to get to High Point today but it just makes it all the sweeter.”
Najdzionek explained that the two types of competitions, the flat class and over fences class, are organized by the different skill levels of the riders. Flat classes are where typically six riders are out at the same time, following horse commands by the announcer to halt, walk, trot, canter or reverse the direction they are walking in. In the over fences category, riders compete individually, jumping over various fences set up in a circular pattern.
“We are real athletes,” said Najdzionek. “Even though we’re only on the horse for a short amount of time, we’re doing a lot of work out there. There’s a lot that goes on both mentally and physically to get the horse moving in the correct direction and in the pace you want it to.”
As is the standard practice of the Intercollegiate Horse Show Association, the assignment of horses to riders is randomized.
In addition to moving the horses in the right direction, to “look pretty is the ideal,” said Najdzionek. “There’s a lot of variables, so getting on a horse that you don’t know at all can be difficult. That was really hard for me last year, my freshman year on the team, and I’ve come a long way, definitely my coach has been a huge help with that.”
After each round, “there was lots of cheering as soon as a ribbon was called,” Najdzionek said. “If someone on your team got a ribbon—doesn’t even have to be blue—there’s a lot of hooting and hollering. There’s definitely a sense of team with IHSA and that’s really nice.”
According to Najdzionek, the ribbons are equivalent to different point values. For instance, a rider who gets first place scores an additional seven points for the team. However, towards the end of the competition, only specific riders are picked for their points to contribute to the team’s total.
Before every home match, the equestrian team arrives at 6:30 a.m. to take care of the horses.
“This is a home show, so we provide all of the horses, so our whole team worked really hard this week to get 24 horses ready to go all day today and tomorrow,” said Najdzionek. “A lot of teamwork goes into getting all those horses ready.”
As successful as the team was this past weekend, Caitlin Shirvinski said that just two years ago, it was unclear whether the program would continue at all. However, the team moved to EKG stables, owned by Grampp, who became the head coach and placed now-senior Shirvinski as captain at the start of the 2021-2022 season.
Each season starts at the beginning of the fall semester and continues through February, with continued training for those who qualify for the regional show. In addition to training three times per week, the team also has group lifts and study hall together.
“It’s been fun to meet all these new people and I’ve made really good friends on this team,” said Gibson, an education major who has been riding for 12 years.
Shirvinski, a geography major who has also been horseback riding for 12 years, agrees.
“I love my team, and they put in so much hard work,” she said. “We really enjoy people coming to our horse shows. It’s not as mainstream but it’s a really fun sport.”